Lea Salonga at the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women Red Dress Collection


(Image taken from

On February 8, Lea Salonga sang for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Red Dress Collection 2018 fashion show. I had been picked to arrange and produce the backing track to her number. She featured it in a recent article in her Backstory column. Video available here at the ABS CBN news website -

So happy to have been a part of this production, even though I was on the other side of the world.

Erik Santos "Awit Para Sa Yo"

Was very privileged to work with one of the premier balladeers of the Philippines, Erik Santos. I arranged three songs for the album, “Awit Para Sa ‘Yo”, two of which became radio singles.


Here is the official music video for “Bakit Mahal Pa Rin Kita.”

Bakit Mahal Pa Rin Kita - Erik Santos
Words & Music by - Jonathan Manalo
Arranged by Ria Villena Osorio
Guitars by Janno Queyquep
Mixed & Mastered by Dante Tanedo
Produced by Jonathan Manalo


Mishka Adams album recording

The last week of June, up to the first few weeks of July, saw me busy with the album recordings of Mishka Adams. Mishka is a kindred spirit in music, as well as a distant cousin and a good friend of mine. She started singing jazz here in the Philippines, but moved to London and is now based there. Aside from jazz gigs, she is an active educator and voice teacher.

I felt very fortunate to be working on this project. I arranged three tunes for her album, and played piano for ten of the recordings. Since playing jazz piano is not my full-time job nowadays, I consider it as a blessed sideline, a glorified hobby. (And it keeps me up at night too, after a full day of arranging)

The album will be a UK release, although I heard it will be also released in the Philippines (probably next year).

Mishka and me

Simon Tan on bass

Edgar Avenir: guitarist and arranger

Mar Dizon on drums


Joey Quirino, guest pianist

Shinji Tanaka. Recording engineer, audio engineer and owner of Sound Creation Studios

Hope I get more gigs like these!!

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Just Some Updates (a.k.a. Why I Haven't Been Updating my Blog)

I can’t believe it’s been a month since I last wrote a blog post! Bad blogger...

Just so you know I’m not merely being a lazy blogger, here’s what I’ve been up to the past weeks.

1. Writing for the Hong Kong Philharmonic orchestra.

The piece I wrote for their Christmas concert features the HKPO with the 70+ piece Hong Kong Philharmonic Children’s Choir. This will be the first time that none of my arranger teammates will be present for an HKPO concert that we have written for. In the past 2 years that we’ve been arranging for HKPO, Gerard Salonga usually conducted the HKPO’s concerts where our arrangements were involved. There was also one concert where JD and I were able to watch them, which was Lee Hom Wang’s Christmas concert last year. HKPO is a bunch of really superb musicians.

2. Writing for Jeremy Monteiro’s big band Christmas special concert at The Esplanade, Singapore.

Jeremy Monteiro is one of the leading jazz artists in Asia. I was very fortunate to have been selected for this project, which features top artists from all over Asia! From the Philippines, we have our own Tots Tolentino and Eddie Sangcap in the saxophone section. Visit this site to view details about the concert, as well as the featured guests. Here’s a current favorite tune of mine, from one of Jeremy Monteiro’s various groups, Asiana. (Tots Tolentino is part of said group)

3. Writing for Lea Salonga Your Songs Concert

This is the concert where Lea is singing all the most requested songs. Since July 2009, requests have been sent, and from those requests, the production team selected the most popular tunes. So this is Lea as you haven’t seen before! FILharmoniKA will be accompanying her, conducted by Gerard Salonga. I’ll be playing second keyboard in this concert as well. FILharmoniKA is currently becoming one of the most in-demand orchestras in the Philippines. I feel I’ve grown a lot during these past years because of their musicianship, and because of the opportunities for me to write for them, and also the guidance/tips from Gerard and the rest of our team of arrangers.

4. Various playing gigs

Flow, the big band/acrobat/musical special of PAGCOR, has been going strong. Last November, I played in ten shows. I’m not actually the main pianist for this show, but Nikko Rivera, a very talented virtuoso.. I’m supposed to be his alternate, but I guess that’s how busy he is, that I get to play in that show a lot! Even though I’m already up to my neck in arranging deadlines, I still try to squeeze in some time to play keyboards. Especially for Flow, since I get a kick out of participating in two worlds (many times, on the same day) - Orchestra in Carmel House studio during the day and Big Band at night. Oh, and not to mention, I get to see my father too - Mel Villena, who leads the 22-piece band. He wrote most of the music for the show.

Aside from this, I was also able to play in some FILharmoniKA shows, and some shows with Lea Salonga. It’s a nice break from writing, and sitting in my computer chair for 10-14 hours in a day. (It’s also the only social life I have at this point, aside from Facebook and the occasional mountain-bike ride with buddies).

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Arrangement for INC Choir - Video and Notes

Last July, we had the opportunity to provide music for the Iglesia Ni Cristo’s 95th Anniversary. FILharmoniKA plus some friends and reinforcements. It was a wonderful night and I had a great time writing arrangements for the praise songs.

I’d like to feature here one of my arrangements for the 95th Anniversary. “Mga Alipin Sa Malayong Silangan” (Servants from the Far East) was composed by the National Artist, Lucio San Pedro. The Tabernacle choir already had their own arrangement of the song, and my task was to write the orchestra part to accompany the choir.

Here is a video of the song: (please wait for it to buffer first and then scroll to the 1:00 mark)’

Alipin Sa Malayong Silangan

So how do I tackle an assignment such as this? I’ve tried many methods, but here’s a simplified and generalized workflow that I use a lot:
1. First, internalize the material given. Take into account not just the melody, but the lyrics as well. What is the message? Who is the audience? In this case, the material is a song of praise to the Lord God. From internalizing the material, I can get a good overview of the outline of the arrangement already. If the line goes “Praise Him, Praise Him,” repeatedly, then that will probably be a majestic section. (Unless the client or artist specifically calls for a more intimate or tender treatment). On the other hand, the verses where the song seems to be narrating a story seem to call for more subdued devices. More on that later...

A side note on internalizing a given song: If I have been given an audio file of a song to rearrange (meaning there is already an existing arrangement) and I am required to make a completely new and original arrangement, I usually don’t like spending much time listening to the old arrangement. Instead, I play the audio file a few times, notate the melody on paper or software, and work on it from there. The reason for this is I find I’m freer to think of new environments for the song in question when I’m not too familiar with the old arrangements. But for songs that I’ve heard hundreds of times prior to rearranging them, well, that’s a story for another blog post...

2. Make a rough outline or sketch of the arrangement. Following my notes from the previous step (e.g. where I determine the peaks and valleys of the songs to be roughly located), I do a quick sketch of the arrangement. I like doing this step on a condensed score staff paper, with the melody written out in one of the staves. This way, I don’t need to flesh out everything at once. It gives me free rein to jot down contrapuntal lines that come to mind, not necessarily fully orchestrated at this point. If the song/melody is the FOREGROUND, here now the PRIMARY BACKGROUND begins to take shape. Lines or blocks of music which support and enhance the melody. The BACKGROUND usually consists of many levels. Also, the foreground and background usually shift from one instrument or instrument group to another. And instead of writing out the full orchestration, I can just specify here, “string pads” or “horn beds” or “majestic brasses”, something along those lines.

For this song, if the section called out for a majestic treatment (such as the repeated “Praise Him, Praise HIm”, or Purihin, Purihin) I’ve put in trumpets, trombones, horns, cymbals and drums.

3. After the rough sketch, I flesh out and fill in the details using notation software. Here is possibly the most tedious part of the orchestration process, but it also can be the easiest in terms of need for ideas - since I have already plotted out the whole song in a sketch. I already have the major counterpoints in place, the accompanying devices, and the only thing left now is to decide (with more detail) what instrument gets to play what. Here is where I decide how many string parts are needed for a particular section, or how I will voice them.

Here is also the stage where I still tend to consult orchestration books. Sometimes I forget about the ideal ranges of instruments, especially if I’ve not written for them for quite sometime. (Of course, the consulting part is skipped when I’m really in a hurry - and I just tend to go with the stuff I know instead of trying out new things).

Many times, stages two and three overlap. Sometimes I like to do sketches up to three sections, and then if I’m running out of ideas, I try to flesh out the sketch. And then, from that fleshing-out, I get more ideas for the remaining sections. I also use the playback function of the software here, but only to check for errors, and also to get a general overview of how the piece is coming out.

4. Lastly, I play back the arrangement on the software, and try to revise. Sometimes I need to erase certain parts, in order to lend more clarity to the arrangement, and also to make the “big” parts stand out more. For instance, if I find that one of the sections is a really busy one in terms of accompaniment, I would delete notes from the previous section in order to not overcrowd the melody. I’m still of the school of thought in music where the main melody is the main feature of the arrangement.. All else is written to enhance, clarify, and solidify the message. This does not mean that arrangements should be oversimplified. My most favorite arrangements are those that have the depth and complexity, but they feature the melody so well, that it can only be magic.

Also, check out Gerard Salonga’s arrangement of Sumilang Na, which has become one of my most favorite arrangements for the year. Been also studying the score for this one.

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Related posts:
MIDI vs Live Recording: An Orchestration Exercise
On Johnny Alegre Eastern Skies part 1

MIDI vs. Live Recording: An Orchestration Exercise

Here is an arrangement and orchestration I did around seven months ago, of Vanessa Paradis’s Divine Idylle. The original recording was arranged in a 60’s-inspired style. For this project, we made new versions of her songs for the orchestra, which were really different from the original arrangements. (to listen to the original recording of Divine Idylle, view her music video in Youtube.)

MIDI VS. LIVE arrangement

Now, here are the two “realizations” of the arrangement I did for this song:

The first one is a MIDI version. The bulk of the samples are from the Vienna Symphonic Library, with a few Kirk Hunter Strings and some East West instruments. It doesn’t have vocals yet here... Also, I posted my draft mix, in order to illustrate some stuff that could be improved on (which I will go into detail later). Listen to this one first.

Divine Idylle MIDI version ©Carmel House Studios, 2009

(Pardon the copy-protect thingy, I had to insert annoying “reminders” throughout the mp3 clips so as to discourage unauthorized use)

The second one is a live version, recorded by FILharmoniKA at Carmel House Studios. I sang a demo vocal in it, in French. (I did my best, ok?)

Divine Idylle LIVE version ©Carmel House Studios, 2009

To be able to compare the two, side by side in your own DAW or sequencer: Set the tempo to 90 BPM, create an audio track for each mp3, then start them at bar 1. Just mute or solo one track if you’re listening to the other.


Now let’s look at how the MIDI version could’ve been improved on, based what we’ve heard from the live orchestra version. (Or if there are parts of the MIDI orchestration which I prefer over my live orchestration)

1. BAR 2 onwards: MIDI version has too much reverb on the snare drum
- this was pointed out to me in one of the orchestration forums I frequent.

2. BAR 2-10: I spent a lot of hours automating the MIDI string tracks in order to have them imitate the sound envelope of a large string section’s attack and decay (on slow-moving lines), and I thought I was able to make a convincing sound, till I heard the live version. I think strings are one of the most difficult instruments to realize in MIDI! Because even when you’ve got the sound envelope right, there are a vast number of other factors to consider: String players usually don’t perform their vibratos at the same time, and at the exact same speed, and there is some sort of “sympathetic vibration” going on.. their overall sound is just massive and lush.

A technique that a mentor of mine shared with me, which helps a lot in MIDI orchestration is this: DON’T quantize your arrangements, as live players don’t play at the exact same millisecond anyway.

3. BAR 2-5: MIDI version used an English Horn.. but an English Horn was not available during the live session, so I had a Clarinet substitute for the English Horn lines. I think it worked nicely, though.

4. BAR 6: The attack of the Trumpet Ensemble on the MIDI version could’ve been less biting.. the live trumpet players were able to adjust to the mellow treatment of the strings on that particular line.

5. BAR 9, live version: Wrong note on the brasses.. whoops!

6. BAR 23: Hmm, I don’t know whose sound I prefer over the other here, the MIDI trombone ensemble, or the live one (a matter of preference in mixing). I sometimes like that “brassy” sound to the trombones in that register (which I did in the MIDI), even in a ballad setting.

7. BAR 27: I revised some string lines for the live version here because in the MIDI version, they just seemed to “drift off”.

8. BAR 36: Again, something I find difficult with MIDI strings: attaining a soft and “round” sound. Too often, the string samples are too bright or too striking. For a soft passage, one has to play the samples softer, but the softer velocity layers in samples don’t have that intensity or life which live players bring to the session. I’m sure there are workarounds here (maybe use a small cello ensemble along with the viola part?). VSL already contains some of the “darker” string samples out there, but will still need a lot of tweaking to achieve a convincing mellow sound.

9. BAR 44-45: Okay, that MIDI oboe didn’t quite pass the test for “almost sounds live”. Notice how in the live oboe recording, there are small, almost unnoticeable “breaks” in the line, which occur during the player’s key-switching. In my effort to make my MIDI oboe sound legato, I forgot that small but important detail, thus making the MIDI oboe sound really MIDI, as if a keyboard was playing the notes (which is what we really want to avoid in MIDI orchestration). I wonder if using an Oboe Legato patch could’ve solved the problem?

10. BAR 46-49 Now here’s one part where I liked the MIDI strings, because they seemed to have life in them. But the line would’ve worked better if the string reverb was brought low, even if only in this part.

11. BAR 50-51 The woodwinds in the MIDI were too “up front” and too loud to be convincing.

12. BAR 52: Another instance where I prefer the mix of my brasses in the MIDI over the live one.. I would’ve liked the trumpets to “blare” a bit, especially in that register, but they were somehow drowned out in the live version. I wanted the brasses to be up front here because they were a “response” to the woodwinds in bars 50-51. Again, this is a matter of preference rather than a textbook rule.

13. BAR 55: In the MIDI version, you could still hear the woodwind lines, but notice how they were drowned out in the live version (or to put it better, they “blended” well with the other orchestra instruments that they doubled in unison). As an arranger, I would’ve liked the woodwind lines to have been heard, but in reality, they would’ve really been smothered by the rest of the orchestra in that register, also because of the dynamic level of that part of the piece. I’d admit that this is where my weakness in mixing lies.. in MIDI, I sometimes make the mistake of highlighting a certain passage in order to make it come out, even if by “live orchestration standards,” the passage could not have floated over the rest of the orchestra. (Unless, of course, we are talking about a soloist, in which case the instrument will really have its own separate mic).

14. BAR 78: I forgot to put the crescendo mark on the brasses (which was there in my MIDI), so they just sort of drifted off in the live version. But I think the “drift off” worked better.

15. BAR 81-84: Hmm. It’s only now that I realized I forgot to put all my cymbal washes into the live version. He he! Too bad, it would’ve really added to the effect I’ve intended.

- - - - - - - - -

There.. hope you liked this mini-analysis!


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Related posts:

Theme from Ipis Man
Things I Learned in a Forum



FILharmoniKa's Kumpas is out on the market! Go get yourselves a copy, and support Philippine orchestral music.


For only P285, you get all these cool tracks:
(side comments regarding the arrangements are mine)

1. Laki Sa Layaw - arranged by JD Villanueva
- elegant orchestration. Stravinsky meets Copland meets San Mig Light.

2. 214 - arranged by Ria Osorio
- with a hint of electronica.

3. Kanlungan - arranged by Marvin Querido. Featuring Noel Cabangon on vocals
- sentimental, very moving

4. Muntik Nang Maabot ang Langit - arranged by Marvin Querido

5. Tao - arranged by Marvin Querido. Featuring Sampaguita on vocals.
- one of my favorite tracks

6. Banal na Aso, Santong Kabayo (by Dong Abay)- arranged by Ria Osorio
- I really enjoyed making this arrangement because this song is one of my favorites. It's sure to become a classic Pinoy Rock song.

7. Ang Huling El Bimbo - arranged by Ria Osorio. Featuring Ely Buendia on vocals.
- Had a hard time with this one because the original is so deeply etched in my mind, as I've been a fan of Eraserheads way back, but I needed to make a new version. I tried to make the arrangement sentimental/nostalgic.

8. Paglisan - arranged by Marvin Querido

9. Salamat - arranged by Dennis Catli/Sharon Feliciano
- lively, good vibes

10. Himig Natin - arranged by Gerard Salonga. Featuring Wally Gonzales on guitar.

11. Next In Line - arranged by JD Villanueva

all tracks conducted and produced by Gerard Salonga

I really enjoyed working on this album. The songs which were assigned to me were songs which I already liked, and knew by heart, back in high school. So it was real challenge to get the original versions out of my head and try to make new ones.

Buy, buy, buy it! Happy

Here's a clip from IMEEM. You can also hear it played in NU 107.

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This Week's Tasks, Plus Some Tidbits About My Dad

1.) 37 Final Countdown plus 7 Showdown numbers for Singing Bee - due on Monday, July 21

Been writing transcriptions for Singing Bee for 2+ months now. For some reason, the load got doubled this weekend. It's probably because my dad, who is the musical director of the show, is doing other shows this month. My dad is the type to farm out his work to other arrangers when he wants to focus on certain projects, to churn out quality arrangements. He is heavily involved in the planning, writing, and of course, music, for Dolphy's show. He's the perfect choice for that show because he's a natural comedian.
(Sometimes I regret that I didn't inherit his showmanship or sense of humor, or ability to command the attention of whatever room he is in, with the least amount of effort. I'm more of my mom in personality, and many of my strengths are different from his, I think.)

My dad, Mel Villena, the Singing Bee Maestro, with the Bandble Bee. Photo taken from


2.) 1 big band arrangement for The CompanY's album - due on Wednesday, July 23

This gives me two days to write it... Hope I do it well despite the time crunch! A big band arrangement is always a dream project for me - even if I do still struggle with the medium sometimes, what with me not being a wind player - but neither was Maria Schneider, Gil Evans, Angel Pena, Michael Giacchino, and a host of other arrangers I truly admire, who write for big band. In other words, no one should use that excuse to explain shortcomings in writing for wind instruments (that he/she isn't a wind player), he he.

The CompanY is coming out with an exciting album! I'll post more details as soon as the project is well under way (I don't want to post spoilers).

In the meantime, I'll leave you with a video of The CompanY performing an arrangement of mine - A Night in Tunisia for Big Band. (I wrote for the big band while The CompanY arranged all vocal parts)

3.) 2 medleys for Dolphy's upcoming show - due on Friday, July 25

I also have two days to do these numbers. Yeeee! Good luck to me.

Pressure is good, in some ways.

My dad will be musical director of this show. Do we smell some nepotism with regard to my current gigs? He he. Well, in defense of his choice of arrangers, I do believe I've earned a bit of experience to be considered his "colleague" (a newbie in comparison to him, maybe, but a colleague nevertheless). He did wait for me to get hired by other people as an arranger, before he decided to hire me in some of his projects, and before he started referring me to his contacts. I got lots of stories and funny incidents related to being the daughter of a well-known and accomplished musical director and arranger here in the Philippines. But I will save those for other posts.

The current onslaught of arranging gigs given to me by my dad - those that aren't related to Singing Bee - may be due in part to shared tastes in music. I grew up listening to his sounds around the house. We both love big band, jazz, world music, and any kind of pop which has some quirkiness to it - mixing genres, experimenting. He is particularly good at big band, soul, show tunes, and novelty or arrangements with a lot of character. His arrangements, more often than not, show an original and highly imaginative mind. He confesses to not being the most mainstream arranger, because his music often has more quirkiness to it to be really considered mainstream, but I'd say he's in a very good niche which not many people are in, and thus the jobs still flow freely. (But of course the real reason is God's providence, behind it all... )

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PYSB Rehearsal

Last Saturday, I attended the Philippine Youth Symphonic Band rehearsal. I went there to deliver a new arrangement of Sitsiritsit and Leron Leron Sinta (in a medley). They also played my Sarung Banggui arrangement. Though the members weren't all there that day, I heard the arrangements and I felt really honored to be working with those guys. They play well for their age.

The new material are all Filipino folk songs, as an effort to remind the younger generation/s about them. They are slowly being forgotten. I remember that in High School, we used to sing some of these songs. Even then, some of the songs I learned were incomplete. I had to revise my Sarung Banggui arrangement for this group after the first reading because there was one part missing, due to the fact that I didn't know there was a C part. We were only taught the A and B parts at school.

Not only did I have the chance to hear the arrangements played (which I enjoyed making, not the least because of my own uncertainty as to whether it'll work out), these would be sponsored (read: professional fees), and I was fed some spaghetti and cake. What more can one ask for on a nice Saturday?


Romy San Jose conducting the group


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Concert Band and Reggae Music

Concert band and Reggae. Do those genres even mix? I think they can. But the difficulty now for me, in this new assignment which involves writing a reggae arrangement of a popular Filipino folk song for a concert band, is that I couldn't find any examples for listening or reference - of a concert band playing reggae music. Suggestions or referrals are most welcome. I have also been told that this arrangement, plus the one I've just finished last April, will be recorded in an album.

Uncertainty in outcome is a great motivating factor for me, though, that's why I readily said yes to the assignment. It can turn out really good, or maybe fall flat on its face - of course the former is more preferable, but the latter makes the whole exercise more exciting. (After all, who wants to be doing the same thing over and over, just because it's successful? A sure magnet for boredom).

- - - -

Ok, obviously I don't have anything more to write. When I decided to start this blog, I told myself I will update it regularly, whether or not people actually care to read it. So I'm updating it now. It's not as easy as I thought. And obviously, if I'm here writing my thoughts out, that means I'm not writing music.

Blog = the ideal procrastination tool. At least for me.

Pardon the so-so post. Things will get better over time.

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Arranging for the Philippine Youth Symphonic Band

This month, I’ve been privileged to arrange for the Philippine Youth Symphonic Band. My task was to give Sarung Banggui, a popular Filipino folk song (by Potenciano Gregorio), a fresh treatment and a “young” sound. Now these days, I don’t have a clear idea as to what “young” really sounds like. As an arranger, people might classify me into the “young” category because of my age, but boy, half or more of my listening material is not “young.”

That aside, I just took “young” to mean “experimental” or “non-traditional”, and so tried to come up with colors which are not traditionally employed in the Concert Band context. For instance, I tried treating the group orchestrally, instead of the usual sectional treatment (where it follows that Saxes are one group, Brasses are another, etc.). Also, for the A parts of the folk song, I employed a funky feel to it, while the B parts are in a swing feel.

I haven’t heard the actual piece yet, so I am very excited! Will post an update as well as a sound clip. I hope the arrangement works!

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